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Thursday, January 25, 2007


Now this is really worrying

A doctor friend of mine told me the following interesting fact: general anaesthetic knocks out the conscious centres of your brain, but not necessarily the emotional ones. This has an effect when people are in an operating theatre. When you hear something, you see, it passes through the emotional centres before reaching the conscious ones: you feel a response a split-second before you've worked out what you actually heard. There's an evolutionary reason for this: it speeds up your reactions when you're in danger. It bypasses some unnecessary circuits, because you can start acting on pure emotion without needing to cogitate. You hear a roar and you're shinning up a tree before you consciously think 'Tiger'; you hear a shot and you're diving for cover before you consciously think 'Sniper'. Your aural wiring can save your life.

But it can also endanger it. This is the down side of the placebo effect: if you think you're not going to get well, you actually lower your chances of recovery. So, if a doctor says over an anaesthetised patient, 'I don't know why we're bothering, this guy's not going to last more than a week anyway,' the patient may, without actually knowing what he heard, lose an edge in fighting his disease and just die, where he might have recovered if he'd heard the doctor saying, 'Well, this guy's got a good chance, I reckon.' Surgeons, apparently, are briefed not to make reckless remarks over a knocked-out patient. You can kill someone with an ill-placed comment.

Now, she's a doctor and I'm not, so it's possible my brain has scrambled this information, so if any of this is garbled, blame me, not her. What's really worrying me, you see, is the idea that you can have a huge emotional fall-out from something that you didn't know had happened. Just because something isn't in your conscious mind doesn't mean it's not having an effect on you.

And given that apparent fact, what the heck are all the dreams we don't remember doing to us?

I read somewhere that dreams are the brain's way of dumping redundant memories and sort of clearing memory space... I'd be quite interested to know a bit about the tests that must have been done to prove this theory; I mean, did they take a sample of patients and say over half of them, "Oh, this one's going to croak soon," and then see how many did compared to the control group? I don't mean to be flippant - I've had an operation myself and for the life of me can't remember a thing. The doctor put the mask over my face and told me to breathe normally, waves of sleep ran up and down my body as I tried my hardest to stay awake, and then the very next second I was awake and it was six hours later.
There's no doubt that this survival instinct works at the conscious level, especially when we're in any kind of danger, but I'm not convinced that something said while you're so knocked out can have an effect. But then again, I'm not a doctor either, and I suppose these guys know what they're doing. Probably best just not to take the risk, but Kit, if we've forgotten a dream, how can it do anything to us?
Hearing is the last sense to go, and people definitely can hear while they're unconscious. Experiments with lucid dreamers have even established they can follow instructions--for example, writing something on a blackboard.

Something spoken, however, couldn't go straight to the limbic system--speech has to be processed first. Music and smells, etc, can go straight there, however, unprocessed, and evoke an immediate response.

It isn't just surgeons who have to be careful what they say--paramedics have the same approach. Similarly, we talk to people in comas because there's a good chance they can hear and understand what's being said. People who've been brought back from apparent PVS (persistent vegetative state) have reported being fully aware of what was going on around them, but unable to respond.

We are constantly affected by things of which we're unaware. Hormones. Neurotransmitters. Pheromones. I don't think it's anything to worry about--in fact there's nothing to be gained by worrying about it. It'll only raise your cortisol levels :D.
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